Road tripping through Iceland

Following my first full day in Iceland, I'd made some friends and decided to join them for a road trip along the south rim of the island. There are very few roads to drive along Iceland as the country is sparsely populated causing most places to be quite difficult to reach, especially on the inland. My new friends had already set up a car rental for three days so I asked to join them and left with them Saturday morning. I'd initially booked several nights in Reykjavik but ultimately canceled my three remaining nights in order to tag along with them. Before even leaving I'd hoped to meet up with a group of people interested in just driving the island, and I was lucky to find just that.

The Seljalandsfoss waterfall near Vik

We left in the late afternoon on Saturday, however, similar to Alaska, the sun doesn't set until very late here in the summer so a 3pm departure time still allowed for 10+ hours on the road with sunlight. We had an end destination in mind for the first night, Vik, but no real plans leading up to it, and with Vik being only two-and-a-half hours from Reykjavik, it gave us plenty of buffer time to explore along the way.

The two main tours people tend to do out of Reykjavik are the Golden Circle and the Ring Road tours, both running around $100-150+ USD, both leaving you very little time to really explore along the way. Everything in Iceland is expensive, so finding a group of five people to split the cost of the rental car, gas, lodging, and food made the trip much more doable, especially considering my low-budget travel mentality (granted I've set aside enough for the year, but best not to blow it all in the first few weeks...).

We decided to start our destination by heading towards the Golden Circle, a 50 mile or so loop northeast of Reykjavik that pretty much shows you every major attraction in Iceland there is to see (save the Blue Lagoon, which we'll get to later).

The Golden Circle takes you through one of two national parks in Iceland, countless waterfalls, and hundreds of tour buses, campsites, hitch hikers, and lodges along the way. It is most definitely worth it to head out on this road, however, I'd advise looking for a setup like mine, renting a car with a group of strangers and exploring on your own. It'll give you much more time in each place and a lot of freedom along the way to discover new things you didn't know were out there. 

Upon leaving the Golden Circle we continue southeast back toward the coast, past a lot of farmland, sheep, and even more waterfalls. Due to the fact the the majority of inland Iceland is covered in glaciers, the entire coast is exploding with melted glacial water heading through the highland plains of the center of the island before meeting the steep dropoff cliffs along the shore. Hundreds of thousands of years ago when sea levels were much higher, the cliffs along the coast would have made up the coastline, though nowadays, these several hundred foot high walls create the waterfall catalysts along the entire coastline. It's really quite something.

The Skogafoss waterfall overlooked by a troll (you can visibly see the face on the rock on the left looking toward the falls).

As we continued toward Vik, we saw waterfall after waterfall, each seemingly more impressive than the next. We pulled off for a couple, but not all of them as there are far too many to stop at every one and few roads that access them all. Our last stop for the day was at the Skogafoss falls, in the small town of Skoga. It turned out that this was actually our final destination for the night and the town our hostel was booked at. It was fortunate that we stopped when we did, as we may have continued driving all the way to Vik before realizing we'd passed our destination thirty miles beforehand.

The Skogafoss falls, like the rest of them, were quite impressive, falling at least a hundred feet from above from a very wide outlet. We decided to do a late-night hike up the side of the falls and found that the views from the top were just as great. 

In addition to that, we saw our first "trolls" of the trip, something the Icelandic people secretly believe in (or so the rumor goes). It's said that Iceland is inhabited by several mythical creatures, trolls being one of them, and after seeing some of the rock formations near this waterfall, I may have to say I'm starting to buy into the idea as well.

The glacier sitting atop Vatnajökull in Iceland

The next morning we woke up and slowly got ourselves on the road. With our final destination on the second day of driving being Höfn, we had plans along the way to pass by several of the dominating glaciers in Iceland. The biggest of these, Vatnajökull (actually the name of the volcano, though the glacier sits on top of it), covers about 8% of the entire island of Iceland. Though we couldn't get all the way into the glacier itself, it extends quite extensively down to the coast and there are plenty of opportunities to get a number of good views of it along the Ring Road drive. After a few hours of driving we reached the best viewing area of the glacier and got out to have a look. Though I've seen glaciers up close before (see Alaska: Part Three), Iceland's was definitely much more impressive, being significantly larger and carving out much larger areas of land. This particular glacier actually has carved out an entire lagoon along the coast, filled with glacier pieces and icebergs all the way out to the ocean. After stopping at the glacier and completing a couple of small hikes during the day, we continued on, finally reaching Höfn late in the evening and settled in for the night. 

Our final day of road tripping was meant to get us all the way back to Reykjavik for one last night in the town. We decided to hit a few things on the way back, namely a few waterfalls that we missed and an old US Navy plane wreckage site which we'd heard about. It was fairly hidden off the main road, but we ultimately found the hull of the plane, with "United States Navy" still visible in white writing along the side. 

For our final day, we woke up late after a fun night out in Reykjavik and headed to the Blue Lagoon, the most famous tourist attraction in all of Iceland. I actually thought twice about visiting the lagoon, as most natives told me that it was overrated and not worth the $50 to enter the park. After visiting, I must say that I thoroughly disagree. Yes, it is a tourist trap (which I hate more than anything while traveling), but it was well worth it. 

The Blue Lagoon is a completely natural hot spring, heated by geothermal vents south of Reykjavik. The entire pool is a comfortable 100-104 degrees F, and is incredibly beautiful with deep blue colors all around. Iceland has made it into an entire spa, however, for not that much money, you can enjoy the pool all day long, socialize, and have a few drinks (3 is the limit). Definitely something that if you visit Iceland you must see for yourself. 

Following the Blue Lagoon all headed back to the airport. My friends I met in Boston and spent the entire duration of my time in Iceland with were leaving for Oslo that night, and though my flight to Belfast, Northern Ireland wasn't until the next day (Wednesday), I decided to crash at the airport overnight rather than take a $30 bus to and from Reykjavik (must think cheap!). I'll be spending about a week in Ireland and then heading to my next location. I'm not sure where that'll be yet, but that's part of the fun of traveling alone. There are no set destinations, just new places to discover along the way!

The Blue Lagoon: The main reason people decide to come to Iceland!